Serendipity (noun): the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. (“a fortunate stroke of serendipity.”)
There was something serendipitous about ending up in a restaurant that feels like you are a guest in someone’s home, eating a meal while surrounded by the owner’s family, and enjoying traditional Cuban recipes and quality rum.
It was a bit of chance, with an accident or two along the way, that led to the seven of us climbing into a pair of Ubers. We were headed across Chicago’s downtown, to take our chances, seeking food and cocktails at Paladar Restaurant & Rum Bar.
We knew nothing about the restaurant, outside of the claims of the website; it hadn’t been our 1st choice (which was closed on Sundays) or even our 2nd choice (which we found out that it was BYOB, and we didn’t have any of our own booze, and didn’t possess the skill to mix the drinks we were after). So we’d head to Paladar. We knew it was a Cuban restaurant, but the majority of us did not know the translation or the meaning of “Paladar.”
Our highly rated Uber driver made great conversation, in response to our many questions about public transportation in the city.
You can count on a group of cyclists, who take to two wheels for fun, for sport and for transportation, to also be curious about bus, rail and ride-share. We compared options in our home base of Columbus, OH to what was available in Chicago; we felt pretty good about our city, except for the upcoming loss of Car2Go, a membership-based program that shares Smart Cars. (I’ve decided it’s my fault – I wasn’t in town enough to use it on a regular basis, thought I have friends who relied on it as their “second car.”)
Twenty minutes later we spilled out of the Uber, and into an intimate restaurant setting, where the occupants of our second Uber had already secured a table for seven. Our voices filled the place, which was small, but had ample seating.
Our waitress, Tanya, was there when we needed her, like a gracious and experienced hostess, with recommendations that were entirely on point. Content sighs were then emitted, as one cocktail after another, swimming in rum, was brought to the table.
A snifter, not much larger than the size of a shot glass, delivered a special rum, not on the menu, but highly recommended by the staff. Those who preferred sweeter cocktails were treated to sangria and pina coladas. I gave the waitress a challenge – I told her that I prefer to drink red wine, on the dry side, and when I’m choosing a beer I order amber, more often than not.
I’m not a very experienced rum drinker, though I was surrounded by several of the cyclists in my group that call themselves experts – I just don’t know much about the stuff. I put my trust in Tanya’s recommendation of the “Old Cuban,” and I was not disappointed. It was a fancy mojito, but topped with champagne, and served in a chilled martini glass. A large mint leaf floated atop the drink, which was smooth, just dry enough for my tastes, and so refreshing.
The restaurant’s staff showed us great hospitality, and we learned what “Paladar” meant:
“Paladar (pl: paladares): a term that in Spanish translates literally to “Palatal” and used with that meaning in the Spanish speaking world, however in Cuba is used exclusively to refer to restaurants run by self-employers. Mostly family-run businesses, paladares are fundamentally directed to serve as a counterpart to state-run restaurants for tourists seeking a more vivid interaction with Cuban reality, and looking for homemade Cuban food.
The term in popular usage had its origin in the Brazillian soap opera Vale Tudo, shown in Cuba in the early 1990s. Paladar (Portuguese and Spanish for “palate”) was the name of the chain of restaurants run by Rachel Accioli, the protatonist. . . The broadcast of that soap opera coincided in time with the first issue of licenses for self-employers’work in Cuba, so Cuban popular culture designated the then-new type establishments by this name.” (http://paladarchicago.com )
We may not have been seeking out this particular paladar, but it was a rum story that propelled us to Paladar Restaurant and Rum Bar. The inspiration for seeking a Cuban restaurant in Chicago began with my two recent trips to Cuba, made possible by Southwest Airlines adding Cuba to its flight path. The Cuban people were warm, resourceful, and hardworking. We enjoyed their rum and their hospitality.
One of my favorite evenings in Cuba took me to a paladar. Paladar San Cristobal was brought into the public eye by President Barack and Michelle Obama’s visit there. The translation below might be a little rough, but it drives the point home. We’d discover the restaurant to be simultaneously “home”, which is familiar and comfortable, and mystical, enchanting and unique.
“Paladar San Cristobal has a familiar, mystical atmosphere and is a place full of memories, where we want people to feel unique and at home. Through a good dinner, we want to show our past and pay tribute to Cuban culture and roots.” ~ Carlos Cristobal Marquez, Chef and Owner (San Cristobol website)
We brought that feeling home in a bottle, which we promised to share with friends. The perfect occasion presented itself on an annual cycling Tweed Ride, where we shared the bottle of Havana Club with the riders, quickly polishing off the entire bottle. We’d been dressed in tweed, very dapper, sipping from flasks all day, which likely made the Cuban rum taste even better.
Some of the riders didn’t realize we were making a quick stop for rum and the rode ahead to our next “official” stop, which was a nearby microbrewery. As they sat and waited, getting close to finishing their first beer, they wondered what was taking the rest of us so long. Luckily we had a 2nd bottle of the Cuban rum, which we promised to make available to the two riders who missed our stop, and were especially interested in the drink.
Months later, we hosted a Cuban cooking night, trying our hand at some favorite Cuban recipes, and once again offering up the “good rum.” Our two friends who’d been left out on the Tweed Ride were specifically invited so that they could partake of the rum. One made it to the dinner, stepping in to assist with the rum station, making mojitos all night long. The other, sadly, was sick and didn’t make it out that night.
So, I agreed that when we met up for our group trip to Chicago a few months later I’d have a flask of rum along. This promise, made hastily, and under the influence of the mojitos, was forgotten, and I showed up in Chicago empty handed! He’d been counting on that rum, so he was part of the group that insisted we find a Cuban restaurant that served the stuff, along with killer cocktails.
A restaurant called Havana was in the plans, and several of us had been counting on a meal there. Some of us had been up since 5 am, ridden 30 miles, hung out at the after party, and we were entering dangerous territory, where folks start getting hangry, and plans start to fall apart. Havana, it turned out, was closed on Sundays.
So, we turned to the internet, found a few alternatives, and took a chance on a restaurant we knew nothing about. That’s how we ended up at Paladar. That’s how we ended up with a giant red snapper showing up to the table, from fish lips to fish tail, vacant eyeballs staring up at a startled diner. He snapped a photo for his wife, who knows he does not eat dishes that still have the eyeballs attached.
A polite request to the waitress led to her taking the dish back into the kitchen, to have the head removed. A few of us had hoped to see a large butcher’s knife brought out to the table, to perform the task, in the style of the classic movie The Christmas Story (see link below). It was probably best that this did not happen.
The rest of the table filled, with plantains in a variety of preparations, fried and steamed yuka, beef and pork that fell apart on our forks, and savory bowls of black beans, with plentiful white rice. Those of us who had been to Cuba found the atmosphere to be familiar, while those who had not were getting just a taste of family-owned atmosphere.
“Our restaurant provides a cool contemporary setting that honors the feel of a true paladar. Our restaurant was designed to meld the feel of old-world Cuba with a modern, extremely comfortable ambiance. Paladar is casual yet has an elegant feel. It is a place where you feel you have been invited into a traditional Havana family home.” (Paladar website)
Chicago-based designer David Albin designs and builds both residential and commercial spaces, so he has insight into how to bring the two together. The owner calls the “Cubano living room,” which is the main dining area, a “warm, comfortable space with the feel of what I remember as ‘the real Cuba.’” (Paladar website)
There are almost as many seats out on the patio that runs along the side of the building. We’d had enough of the record-setting Chicago summer heat, while out on our bikes that morning, so we were happy to relax inside.
The atmosphere was intimate – the restaurant isn’t large, but with the restaurant and bar space divided out into separate spaces, the restaurant kept the intimate feel. Another group of around 8 – 10 diners was in the back room, seated at a large table along the back wall of the bar, under a large wall painted with the Havana Club rum logo, whence the bar got its name.
“Our dining room reflects Old World Colonialism and our personal family history, as well as reflections of Pre-Castro Cuba… or as my father says, ‘before Cuba went to s***’ As in any family home, we have gone to great efforts to make sure our friends and guests feel comfortable and welcome before they enjoy our flavors of Cuba.” ~ Jose Gonzalez (Paladar website)
We lingered over our food, as you’d be expected to do if you were a guest in the home of a Cuban family. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and we had the front half of the restaurant almost to ourselves. One or two other tables rotated through customers, and there were several take-out orders, while we laughed, and toasted, and sighed, and shared stories of life, and cycling, and the cycling life.
The other large party exited through the front of the restaurant, past our table. I leaned over to the waitress, who was clearing plates and offering drink refills, and asked her if our group had been more fun than that other group in the back. She told me she’d had a great time with us, and that we were more fun. Good answer; her already generous tip was growing.
The meal ended with coffee: a latté, and a simple cup of drip coffee arrived at the other end of the table, while a small, condensed cup Cuban-style coffee (more like dark espresso) was placed in front of me, which paired perfectly with the passion fruit tart.
It was difficult for anyone to decide which dessert to try; we thought with 7 of us we could order a little of everything, and share around the table. Two types of flan (coconut and plain) joined a towering piece of chocolate cake, bread pudding, the passion fruit tart, and Bomba, a chocolate and vanilla ice cream ball (or two), with maraschino cherry and slivered almonds, coated in a layer of chocolate that forms a thin shell around the dessert.
Family-style, we all stayed in our seats, and the desserts were passed in a circle around the table. The bread pudding wasn’t a favorite, and some folks passed on the odd, viscous mouthfeel of the flan, but the rest of the plates were practically licked clean. The tartness of one dessert was balanced by the creamy richness of the next, and the Cuban-style coffee, served black, took the sweet and tart edge off of the tart, for some.
We thought our meal was over, and were leaning back in our chairs, to make room for our full bellies. We speculated about plans for the rest of the afternoon and evening, and several suggestions that involved napping were suggested. It had been a very full day already, and it was only around two in the afternoon.
Long drives and flights were ahead of us, the next morning. We didn’t want to think about that just yet, so we tried to be in the moment, and linger in side conversations, for just a few more minutes. That’s when the staff emerged from the kitchen, with a round of chilled banana rum shots for the table. Eyes lit up – it was a 2nd dessert!
We toasted. We drank. We smiled. We’d be back, perhaps for a Tuesday night round of live music, and perhaps sooner, rather than later. Cheers! (Guest photo by Rahel Babb.)
“Like our beloved Cuba, time stands still at our rum bar, Havana Club. Feel the warm Cuban hospitality where Latin music fills the air and over 70 premium rums are served in our art deco, vintage bar. Experience all that Cuba has to offer in our signature cocktails, authentic food and live Latin music every Tuesday from 7 – 10 pm.” (Paladar / Havana Club website)
Join me on my next adventure,
Paladar (Wikipedia): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paladar
Paladar Restaurant and Rum Bar: http://paladarchicago.com
Live Music at Paladar Restaurant and Rum Bar (Havana Club): http://paladarchicago.com/live-music
San Cristobol: http://www.paladarsancristobal.com/es/
The Christmas Story (movie): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTq20prt0K8